The most revolutionary group in gospel music, the Soul Stirrers and their succession of incredible lead singers were largely responsible for the development of modern soul music. The concept for the Soul Stirrers developed in an upper room at 1608 Andrew Street, Houston, Texas, in September 1929. Walter Lee “W.L.” La Beaux of Houston wanted to form a quartet. He chose the name the New Pleasant Green Gospel Singers from the New Pleasant Green Church and on September 10th organized the group with himself as tenor and manager, Edward Allen (E.A.) Rundless, Jr. of Walliceville, Texas (second tenor), C.N. Parker (baritone), and W.R. Johnson (bass). After four years, Johnson died and O.W. Thomas took his place. A year later Parker passed on a Senior Roy (S.R.) Crain of Trinity, Texas, joined in his spot. At that time they changed the group’s name to the Soul Stirrers of Houston, Texas.
In 1934 W.L. La Beaux chose to preach the gospel and A.L. Johnson joined up. On July 26, 1936, Jessie James (J.J.) Farley of Pennington, Texas, came into the group. That same year, Alan Lomax recorded the Soul Stirrers for the Library of Congress, the group’s very first recordings.
By 1937 the group included S.R. Crain (first tenor), Rebert H. (R.H.) Harris (second tenor), A.L. Johnson (baritone), M.L. Franklin of Trinity, Texas (second tenor), and J.J. Farley (bass).
R.H. Harris became the innovator, handling the lead and directing the group away from the old fashioned Jubilee style toward a modern gospel approach. He created the concept of a second lead singer, turning quartets into quintets and providing for consistent four-part harmony under the alternating lead singers. He also introduced the concept of ad-libbing lyrics, signing in delayed time, and repeating words in the background. When R.H. joined the Stirrers he revered blues artists like Leroy Carr, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lil Green.
With all their innovation and talent, the Stirrers weren’t going to get rich on gospel singing. One revival they played in a small Oklahoma town earned the whole group $2.65 for a week’s worth of singing.
In 1939 the Stirrers began performing on radio alongside the white Stamps Baxter Quartet.
By the 1940s they were one of the superior gospel groups, on a level with THE PILGRIM TRAVELERS, THE GOLDEN GATE QUARTET, THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS, and THE FIVE BLIND BOYS OF MISSISSIPPI.
During World War II they performed on a variety of USO shows and sang for President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the White House.
Their first public recordings were made in 1948 for Aladdin and in 1950 for Specialty, where they did the legendary “By and By.” Toward the end of that year R.H. Harris decided to retire. Hall Foster became the new second lead in 1949. In 1950 S.R. Crain brought in a 19-year-old from Chicago who had idolized Harris to the point of imitation. But the youngster, whose name was Sam Cooke, soon developed his own style along with a gospel yodel hat first appeared in the 1954 recording of “He’ll Make a Way” and later in his own secular 1957 hit “You Send Me.”
Sam, however, had an influence before that; his very first recording with the Soul Stirrers on March 1, 1951, “Peace in the Valley,” was later recorded not once but twice by Elvis Presley, first for Sun Records and in 1957 for RCA.
With Foster’s raspy shouting style and Sam’s smooth, sexy sound the Soul Stirrers had one of gospel’s great one-two punches. The Stirrers, like almost all gospel groups prior to 1950, sang a capella but they became among the first to switch to instrumental backup.
During the ‘40s and ‘50s many other great gospel voices sang with the Stirrers, including James Medlock, Leroy Taylor, R.B. Robinson (who founded THE HIGHWAY QCs, from which several of the group’s lead signers were drawn), Julius Cheeks, and T.L. Brewster.
On March 31, 1956, Billboard reviewed the Soul Stirrers’ recording of “Wonderful,” one of their classics, calling it “A gentle deeply sincere reading of a pretty prayer meeting tune.” Later that year, while Sam was still in the group, a single was issued on Specialty called “Lovable” that closely resembled “Wonderful.” The artist was Dale Cook, a name Sam adopted to hide his secular pursuits from his gospel followers. This was the actual spelling of his name before he moved into pop charts including “You Send Me” (#1, 1957), “Chain Gang” (#2, 1960), and “Another Saturday Night” (#10, 1963).
His replacement was Highway QCs alumnus, Johnnie Taylor, who was then singing with the Melodymakers and who patterned his early sound after Sam’s, just as Sam had styled himself after R.H. Harris. One of the group’s more notable recordings with Taylor was “Stand by My Father,” later restyled to become Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Johnny had already sung with an R&B group in 1954 (the Five Echoes) so it was not surprising when he moved on in 1963 and issued lusty shouting hits like “Who’s Makin’ Love” (#5 Pop, #1 R&B, 1968), “Take Care of Your Homework” (#20 Pop, #2 R&B, 1968), and “Disco Lady” (#1 Pop and R&B, 1976) among his 39 R&B and 24 pop charters from 1963 to 1987. Jimmy Otler took over lead from Taylor and was succeeded by yet another Q.C.s member, Willy Rogers, in 1967.
Despite numerous changes in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s the Soul Stirrers’ level of quality remained high. Jessie Farley was the last remaining original Stirrer, continuing with the group until his death in 1990. Sam Cooke died on December 11, 1964, from gunshot wounds in a Los Angeles motel. Paul Foster, as of the ‘80s was a vegetable deliveryman in Las Vegas and James Medlock was a doorman in Chicago. Jimmy Otler was killed during a fight in 1967.
R.H. Harris formed the Christland Singers in the ‘50s with two ex-Stirrers, James Medlock and Leroy Taylor. He later sang with the Paraders, recording for Sam Cooke’s Sar Records in the early ‘60s. He eventually became a florist but always stayed close to the gospel scene.
Indisputably among the premier gospel groups of the modern era, the Soul Stirrers pioneered the contemporary quartet sound. Pushing the music away from the traditional repertoire of jubilees and spirituals towards the visceral, deeply emotional hard gospel style so popular among postwar listeners, the group’s innovative arrangements — they were the first quartet to add a second lead — and sexually-charged presence irrevocably blurred the lines between religious and secular music while becoming a seminal influence on the development of rock & roll and soul, most notably by virtue of their connection to the legendary Sam Cooke. The Soul Stirrers’ origins date back to 1926, where in the town of Trinity, Texas, baritone Senior Roy Crain formed a quartet with a number of other teens with whom he attended church. After one of the group’s early appearances, a member of the audience approached Crain to tell him how their performance had “stirred his soul,” and from this chance compliment the Soul Stirrers were officially born.
The original group fell apart soon after, but Crain continued to pursue a singing career; upon relocating to Houston during the early ’30s, he joined a group called the New Pleasant Green Singers on the condition that they change their name to the Soul Stirrers. So rechristened, this incarnation of the quartet made a 1936 field recording for Alan Lomax; as other members dropped out, Crain brought in replacements, finally arriving at the classic early lineup which also included bass Jesse Farley, baritone T.L. Bruster, second lead James Medlock and, most notably, lead R.H. Harris, whose high, crystalline voice remains the inspiration for virtually all great male quartet leads to follow since. After moving to Chicago, the Soul Stirrers began shifting away from the signature tight harmonies and compact songs of traditional gospel towards a harder style distinguished by shifting leads and performances elongated to increase their emotional potency; they also began performing new material from the pens of Thomas A. Dorsey, Kenneth Morris and others.
Throughout the 1940s, the Soul Stirrers’ reputation grew; not only were they constantly on tour, but they booked most of the major gospel programs in the Chicago area — in their spare hours, they even operated their own cleaning business. When the grind got to be too much for Medlock, he retired from the road, and was replaced by onetime Golden Echo Paul Foster. In early 1950, the Soul Stirrers signed to the Specialty label, debuting with the single “By and By”; it was quickly followed by “I’m Still Living on Mother’s Prayer” and “In That Awful Hour,” both originals composed by Detroit’s Reuben L.C. Henry. In total, the Soul Stirrers recorded over two dozen tracks for Specialty in 1950 before Harris quit the group that same year; many predicted a dire future, especially when it was announced that his replacement was a relatively unknown 20-year-old named Sam Cooke. When Cooke made his recording debut with the Soul Stirrers in 1951, however, any reservations were quickly dispelled — blessed with a gossamer voice even sweeter and more graceful than Harris’, he would take the group to even greater heights than before.
The first Soul Stirrers 78 to feature Cooke, “Jesus Gave Me Water,” was a major hit, and with his good looks the young singer made an instant impact with female audiences, in the process becoming the gospel circuit’s first sex symbol. The group’s popularity continued to soar, but as the Soul Stirrers entered their third decade, the daily grind began to wear on its members, and soon Bruster retired; he was replaced by baritone Bob King, who also doubled as a guitarist, becoming their first-ever steady instrumentalist. In 1954, the Soul Stirrers briefly added Julius Cheeks to their roster; after lending his raspy vocals to a recording of “All Right Now,” however, contractual obligations forced him to exit almost as quickly as he arrived. In 1956, Cooke finally crossed over to the pop market, and was replaced by ex-Highway QC Johnnie Taylor; while Taylor himself would also enjoy pop success in the years to follow, he failed to command the same devotion as his predecessor. Lineup changes continued regularly in the years to follow, but the Soul Stirrers forged on, with new, younger members keeping the group afloat into the 1990s
— Jason Ankeny